Racially, theatrically, sociologically -- let us count the adverbs to honor how many ways "A Raisin in the Sun" affected America.
"It was a big turning point in the history of theater," says Walter Mason, director of this weekend's twin performances of the classic drama at the Nicholas J. Horn Theatre on the North Las Vegas campus of the College of Southern Nevada. "Much enlightenment was done by the writing of 'A Raisin in the Sun.' "
Older moviegoers will recall Sidney Poitier's iconic performance in the 1961 film adaptation of the 1959 Broadway play in which he also starred. Younger theatergoers might remember it for the revival that offered up hip-hop mogul Sean Combs in the lead, garnering underwhelming reviews.
Yet in its importance, "A Raisin in the Sun" is star-proof. Beyond kicking off the country's black theater movement in the 1960s, this "kitchen-sink drama" by Lorraine Hansberry -- its title taken from the Langston Hughes poem "Harlem" -- took on not just the divide between parents and children, but the "deferred dreams" of black Americans in the mid-20th century.
"(Hansberry) asked blacks to reconsider how those dreams might be defined (and) she demanded that whites not impede the fulfillment of those dreams for one more second," wrote Frank Rich, then The New York Times theater critic, reviewing a 1983 revival. "And she posed all her concerns in a work that portrayed a black family with a greater realism and complexity than had ever been previously seen on an American stage."
Set in a cramped household occupied by several generations of the black Younger family on Chicago's South Side in the 1950s, "Raisin" addresses those themes from a simple plot: They have to decide how to spend a $10,000 insurance payment after the patriarch's demise -- and whether to move into a home they can now afford in a hostile white neighborhood.
Family members differ sharply on what to do with the windfall -- and their competing dreams. Notable among the cast of characters is Walter Lee (the role played by Poitier and Combs), the 35-year-old son who has yet to really grow up. Working as a chauffeur, he thinks he can get rich by opening a liquor store with the money, though his mother wants to purchase the home to more comfortably house her family, even with the problems that would come with living among whites in the 1950s.
" 'Raisin' was remarkably prescient in identifying issues that would continue to shape African-American life," wrote current New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley, reviewing a 2004 "Raisin" reprise.
"Black men's struggles for self-assertion in households dominated by strong women, the movement to separate African from American identities, Christianity as both an oppressive and redemptive power, the restlessness of women imprisoned by domesticity -- all these elements come into play in Hansberry's drama."
The playwright, Mason adds, was particularly adept at addressing universal themes such as the problems between parents and children while also tackling larger social and racial questions about the hurdles black Americans had to overcome -- and in some ways, still do.
"It provided an opportunity for white America as well as black America to cross this big divide, but some remnants of it still exist," Mason says.
"It will probably be relevant for some time to come."
Contact reporter Steve Bornfeld at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0256.